In her 1990 book, Ethnic Options, sociologist Mary C. Waters interviewed sixty suburban, Roman Catholic, upper-middle-class, third and fourth-generation «white ethnic» Americans of European extraction, finding that «Italian was the most common response by people to the question, “If you could be a member of any ethnic group you wanted, which one would you choose?”» (p. 142). The notion that Italian Americans are having more fun, experiencing more warmth and beauty, and eating better food than other Americans reflects a popular romanticization that Americans and American media tend to map back also onto what for most people was a harrowing, even dehumanizing, immigration experience. While several Italian American writers have provided correctives to the sentimentalization of Ellis Island and urban Little Italy immigrant life, Mary Bucci Bush breaks new ground in her novel about a post-slavery Italian immigrant labor colony in the South.
Sweet Hope opens in 1901 on the eponymous cotton plantation run by the progeny of former slaves and worked by Italian immigrants and African American families, the former increasingly outnumbering the latter. Black sharecroppers are left to teach the Italians English, as well as how to survive and how to work the land. An opening act of selfless courage on the part of an Italian man binds the Halls and the Pascalas – a bond that from the start is anxiety-ridden and under constant threat by the complexities of post-Civil War racial politics in the Mississippi Delta region where plantation owners imported immigrant labor in part in order to undermine the position of former slaves who remained in the South. To the Pascalas, it appears that African Americans are citizens with full rights and privileges since on the Sweet Hope plantation they are allowed freedoms and mobility denied to Italian immigrants. The black characters negotiate relationships with white plantation owners but attune to the idiosyncrasies of racial hierarchy of the American South. The plantation owner, Mr. Gates, allows Step Hall to carry a gun as overseer, but Step does not imagine for a moment that this allowance undoes his having been born into de jure slavery nor that his current situation is anything more than de facto slavery. The Italians’ perilous ignorance of the history of slavery and its ramifications sadly endangers their African American counterparts for whose guidance they are so grateful. The Pascalas cannot predict, for example, the violent white Southern reaction to their daughter falling in love with the Halls’ son.
The novel’s unerring commitment to realism pays heed to the particularities of its historical context, a quality that alongside the novel’s literary excellence and intriguing plot won Bush the Working Class Studies Association’s 2012 Tillie Olsen Award. Bush draws upon her grandparents’ stories of their experience on the Sunnyside Plantation in the Mississippi Delta along with her extensive research into the experimental peonage system that imported Italians under false pretenses and bound them into contract labor by way of trumped up debts impossible to repay. Even as the novel pays tribute to the author’s ancestors and their plight, it never loses sight of the greater travesties suffered by African Americans. Step Hall, the African American plantation overseer, shouts at Serafin Pascala, for example, «Open your eyes. We been here more’n two hun’red years. We still here. We still workin. You been here one year and you cryin» (p. 129). And although the Italian characters are swindled, constricted, and beaten, it is the black characters on Sweet Hope that are raped and murdered without hope of legal retribution. (At the same time, those familiar with Italian American history know that the late nineteenth century saw rapes, murders, and lynchings of Italian Americans whose racialization by the dominant culture in the U.S. made them extremely vulnerable). Even as the novel uncovers the largely unknown history of Italian peonage in the post-slavery South, it is important that Bush consistently and responsibly acknowledges that the horrors of her ancestors’ experiences are at no point comparable to the nightmarish onslaught of violence and constant threats of violence that terrorized their African American contemporaries.
Perhaps the most intriguing thread in the novel comes out of Bush’s brilliant exploration of the racial ambiguity of Southern Italians who are considered neither white nor black against the tense backdrop of 1901-1906 Mississippi Delta plantation culture. Especially poignant are the moments when children begin to realize the ways in which they are marked by dominant American culture and that these ways are no less fierce for being arbitrary and constructed (several characters privy to the nuances of the U.S. racial hierarchy take notice of the surprising darkness of some Italians’ skin, as well as the unexpected lightness of some African Americans, for example). When the young girls Isola and Birdie find themselves away from the plantation and in the village, a rich «American lady»’s reaction to them teaches them their worth in the system: Isola is exoticized as a foreign creature worthy of a moment’s charity and Birdie is summarily dismissed; the lady leaves them with a nickel for Isola, a penny for Birdie effectively communicating their relative values in connection to color schema (p. 174).
Although much of the book seems to interweave minor and major tragedies, there are moments of lightness, love, compassion, and generosity. Fierce living conditions on Sweet Hope engender intense if troubled friendships, give rise to star-crossed romances like the passionate affair between Calvin Hall and Angelina Pascala as well as steady, committed partnerships between husbands and wives, and an exploration of the ways in which people who are forced to live on next to nothing find it in themselves to become caretakers to their neighbors in times of need. Questions of humanity and the heart intertwine beautifully with interrogations of citizenship, social constructions of class and race, and cultural and social mobility and expendability. Much as in her collection of stories, A Place of Light (2007, original 1990), Bush explores the nuances of human deprivation and desire refusing to either romanticize or condemn her characters. One of the most important charges of American historical fiction and nonfiction alike is to revisit and to seek greater understanding of the institution of slavery as well as, more broadly, the attendant racial formations in America. Mary Bucci Bush’s Sweet Hope deserves to be read alongside contemporary works such as Edward P. Jones’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel, The Known World (2006), as well as nonfiction studies also striving to answer this vital call including Jennifer Guglielmo and Salvatore Salerno’s Are Italians White? How Race is Made in America (2003).
Jessica Maucione (Gonzaga University)